Let Me Finish, Please
by Rick Brenner
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
Kristin stopped talking in mid-sentence. What was the point, she thought. She couldn't keep her own words straight with Dennis over-talking her. But she didn't want to let him get away with it, so she said in her best imitation of stern, "Excuse me, please, Dennis, I wasn't finished."
That got his attention. It got everyone else's attention, too, and Kristin regretted that. Maybe it was better to just let him roll over me, she thought.
Kristin is struggling with an issue that affects many of us — what to do about being interrupted, especially by repeat offenders.
Much of the problem is beyond your ability to resolve as an individual. Only the group as a whole can really address the part of the problem that traces to cultural patterns. It's a worthy activity, and I'll write more about it next time. For now, let's focus on what you can do yourself. Here are some tips for dealing with interruptions when you have the floor at a meeting.
Even though someone
might have interrupted you,
you might bear some
of the responsibility
- When someone interrupts you, check first to see whether you mind
- Not all interruptions are bad or disrespectful or malevolent. We're often grateful for a relevant question, a really funny remark, supportive evidence, a key clarification, or even a "Yes, I noticed that, too" — if it's brief and to the point.
- Sidebars aren't interruptions
- When two people engage in a sidebar, they aren't interrupting you — they're disrupting the meeting. Taking personal offense probably won't help. If the meeting has a Chair, ask the Chair for order. Otherwise, ask the meeting at large for order.
- Sometimes you interrupt yourself
- Sometimes as you're talking, you recall a related idea, or you think of something to add before continuing. Whether or not you see this digression as an interruption, you could be interrupting yourself if you insert it into what you're saying. It's almost always safer not to interrupt yourself.
- Wrap it up
- Sometimes you're the root cause of the interruption, especially if you're taking too much time, or plowing over already-plowed ground. Be respectful of everyone's time — wrap it up.
- Pause strategically
- As you're speaking, some of your listeners are actually just waiting — they're looking for cues that you're finished, so they can jump in. They interpret pauses as cues. Pausing at the end of a sentence or clause, especially when accompanied by a breath, invites interruption. To avoid this, pause for breath only in mid-clause.
Some interrupters are actually trying to be rude or intimidating, or worse. If that's the case, the problem is bigger than interrupting, and only a private conversation can help address it. Whatever you do, avoid email.
If you tend to interrupt others yourself, consider cutting back. Unless you do, interruptions will probably continue without interruption. Top Next Issue
For an exploration of interruptions from the point of group as a whole, check out "Discussus Interruptus," Point Lookout for January 29, 2003.
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 28: The Limits of Status Reports: Part II
- We are not completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits. Available here and by RSS on January 28
- And on February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
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